The sibling writing-directing duo known as the Wachowskis were the titans of cool when they made Bound and The Matrix in the ’90s. In a better universe, if you looked up the word “awesome” in a 1999 dictionary, their picture would be there.
The trouble is, they’ve been coasting on that cool ever since. Now, they are officially running on empty with Jupiter Ascending, a tedious, nonsensical if occasionally visually impressive sci-fi mash-up that does manage to answer one burning question: What would Channing Tatum look like if he had Spock’s ears?
Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones (yes, really), a girl born aboard a ramshackle ship on the Atlantic after her amateur-astronomer Russian dad is killed in a robbery and her pregnant mom flees the mother country. Reared by Chicago relatives, Jupiter earns her keep by helping out with the family business: housecleaning.
Jupiter won’t be scrubbing toilets for long, though. In reality, she’s a wanted woman because our galactic overlords — a ruthless, warring troika of siblings headed by brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne) — are in need of her presence. It seems she’s of royal lineage and really shouldn’t be reduced to a common world of dirty pans and dishpan hands.
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Caine (a miscast Tatum) is a “hunter” and “skyjacker,” a sort of human whose DNA has been spliced with that of a wolf (hence the ears), who has been hired by Balem’s brother, Titus (Douglas Booth), to find her first.
From there, the plot teeters into complete absurdity involving a war within our royal family, Jupiter getting to wear a really rockin’ wedding dress and Redmayne turning in a performance so unintentionally comic that it may force him to return his recently won Golden Globe. And poor, poor Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so celebrated in Belle and Beyond the Lights, now reduced to wearing what look like giant mouse ears.
Oh, and Jupiter and Caine fall for each other, even though he’s damaged goods, having had his wings (yes, wings!) forcibly removed. He can still fly with the greatest of ease, though, thanks to his rocket boots (don’t ask).
What time Andy and Lana Wachowski didn’t spend on the script, they invested in the visuals (that reported $175 million budget had to go somewhere). When the keepers, skeletal demonic creatures in Balem’s employ, first make an appearance to drag Jupiter from Earth, they are genuinely a frightening specter. And the strange worlds of our supposed superiors — a blend of Egypto-Roman decadence and 19th-century steampunk gadgetry — make for some sweet eye candy. Still, as with most films, the 3-D is entirely extraneous.
As good as it looks, that is not nearly enough to rescue Jupiter Ascending, the first original film by the Wachowskis since the “Matrix” trilogy. (Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas were based on pre-existing material.) It has been preceded by bad word-of-mouth, no doubt spurred by Warner Bros. moving the long-gestating film from its original release date last summer to the no-man’s-land of early February. A surprise screening at Sundance in late January was met with indifference (though, to be fair, Sundance is hardly the crowd for sci-fi action-adventure).
For the sake of Neo, Morpheus, the red pill, the blue pill and the rest of The Matrix, it would be great to report that the negativity was wrong, that the Wachowskis indeed got their groove back. But the only groove they’re going to see is the one on multiplex floors as moviegoers stampede the exits.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571
Directors: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
Rated: PG-13 (violence, sci-fi action, suggestive content, partial nudity)
Running time: 127 min.